Sony Alpha A700 Review
Performance - How well does it take pictures?
Ultimately, it is the image quality that makes a camera worth buying. For an SLR, image quality greatly depends on the lens used. While color, noise, exposure and contrast are properties of the camera, distortion, vignetting and chromatic aberrations are properties of the lens. Sharpness depends on the weakest link. That is, the camera cannot capture more detail than the lens lets through. Conversely, it is possible for a lens to transmit more detail than the sensor can capture.
The Alpha A700 features multi-segment metering as well as center-weighed and spot metering. The multi-segment metering, which consists of 40 segments, performs generally well with a bright output well-suited for printing. While default metering is consistent under normal conditions, it is not so reliable when light-levels get very low. It is important to remember that the A700's DRO automatically adjusts for exposure problems, particularly for high-contrast scenes.
The Sony Alpha A700 has several Creative Styles which affect the way it renders JPEG images. The defaults for Standard mode are somewhat subdued but adjustments are possible in terms of contrast, saturation and sharpness. After experimenting, our preferred settings was to leave contrast as is, adjust saturation to +1 and sharpening to +1 as well. These settings resulted in the most natural looking images. For more punchy images, saturation can be pushed to +2 without causing much channel clipping. Sharpness, however, introduces visible artifacts when pushed beyond the +1 setting. Vivid mode is just a bit more saturated and produces pleasing results which do not look unnatural. The remaining creative styles affect colors, contrast, sharpness, brightness and tonality in different ways which are abstractly explained in the user manual.
The white-balance system is average for a DSLR. In automatic mode, it gives a good approximation in natural light but tends to leave artificial lighting with a strong yellow cast. Note that most DSLR cameras suffer from his problem. When using a preset white-balance, performance is substantially better, although tweaking is necessary to obtain exact results for incandescent lights. Custom white-balance, on the other hand, is excellent and adapts well to unusual lighting. The custom white-balance function can also be used as a color-meter since it reports the sampled color-temperature.
Image noise is extremely low, particularly in good light. This is a major step forward compared to the Alpha A100 which was below average in this respect. ISO 100 to 1600 are very smooth under such conditions. ISO 3200 and 6400 show some noise, but perform quite well. Considering that most 10 megapixels DSLR cameras do not even offer an ISO 3200 mode and that the Sony Alpha A700's ISO 3200 is comparable to ISO 1600 on such cameras, the A700 turns in a top-notch performance in this area. At ISO 6400, bright prints up to 12"x8" looked quite good.
When long shutter-speeds are required due to poor light-levels, a slight amount of noise appears around ISO 800 and increases steadily after that. By ISO 3200, noise becomes quite intrusive. Unfortunately, the A700 uses aggressive noise-reduction in low light. While it does keep noise relatively low, it dissolves details at all ISO settings. Due to this, acceptable prints were quite a bit smaller in low-light than in good-light.
The image quality of this DSLR is excellent. In good light, the Sony A700 produces superb images, thus matching its best competitors in terms of color sharpness and contrast. Noise levels are better than most cropped-sensor DSLR cameras under such conditions. When light-levels are quite low, results are not that impressive but still reasonable for a DSLR.
The Sony Alpha A700's built-in stabilization proved to be very effective. Sony claims between 2 and 4 stops of improvement over normal hand-holding. This is spot-on according to our results where we consistently got at least 2 stops of improvement and managed to get 4 stops often enough, but not always.
Just like every DSLR we ever reviewed, the A700 is fast and responsive with a short shutter-lag and good shot-to-shot speeds. Of course, having a 5 FPS continuous drive does not hurt. Where the Sony A700 excels is at focusing. It focuses extremely fast. Sony claims it has the fastest focusing system of any camera. While we cannot confirm this, the A700 is definitely has an extremely fast auto focus system. It slows down a bit when light is low but never feels slow. Center-point focusing is nearly instant under normal conditions. The Sony Alphas share the same trick to speed up auto focus, they can start focusing before the shutter is pressed halfway using their eye-start sensor and, in the case of the A700, the grip-sensor as well.
Image playback and zoom are very fast, even when switching between images while being zoomed. In terms of speed, the A700 never lets the photographer wait. The 5 FPS continuous drive officially shoots at 5 FPS until the memory card gets full. In practice, the Alpha slowed down after about 20 frames with our 66X SD cards. Since there are now much faster cards, your mileage may vary.
The Sony Alpha A700 is the first of a new generation of cropped-sensor DSLR cameras with 12 megapixels image-sensors and higher ISO sensitivities. With the A700, even ISO 6400 is usable for medium-sized prints when the light is good. This capability alone is enough to put this camera in an advantageous position. Add to that an ultra-fast focusing system, built-in stabilization, great ergonomics, good build quality and 5 FPS shooting and you have a great camera.
Another important aspect of this DSLR is its ergonomics. The camera is easy to hold with numerous well-placed buttons giving access to all important functions. The LCD, which serves as a status screen and is controlled by the eye-start sensor, greatly contributes to this Alpha's overall ergonomics. Having two control wheels also adds to this camera's professional feel.
There were only two disappointing areas for the Sony Alpha A700. First off, long-shutter noise reduction is too aggressive and destroys details even at low ISO. Secondly, the ultra-sharp 3" LCD on the camera's back has accuracy problems. The most significant problem is that images are too yellow. This makes it impossible to check that the correct white-balance was chosen. The second problem is over-sharpening which means that some unsharp images may appear sharp.
The bottom line is that the Sony Alpha A700 brings many unique features and produces high quality images under most conditions. Except for long shutter-speeds, this is one of the best DSLRs to choose.
Sony A700 Highlights
Sensor-Size: 24 x 16mm
Actual size when viewed at 100 DPI
|12 Megapixels DSLR||ISO 100-6400|
|Sony A Mount|
|2-Axis Built-in Stabilization||Full manual controls, including Manual Focus|
|Custom white-balance with 1 axis fine-tuning|
|Automatic Eye-Start sensor||Spot-Metering|
|Built-in Dust Reduction||Hot-Shoe|
|5 FPS Drive, Unlimited Images||Lithium-Ion Battery|
|3" LCD 920K Pixels||Compact Flash|
|Memory Stick Duo|
No camera is perfect, this one included. Here we list our top enhancement wishes for the next Alpha model. Since we already know Sony is launching a higher-end model early next year, we hope it is not too late for these to come true.
- Better preservation of details when using long shutter-speeds for low-light photography.
- Make the LCD colors accurate.
- Reduce sharpening of displayed images.
- Make the viewfinder have 100% coverage.
- Add a digital level to indicate when the camera is held either perfectly horizontally or vertically.
- Add a setup option to reset some settings on power-off. The most likely candidates are EC, WB, drive-mode, metering and ISO. They should be individually selectable.
- Reset the 10 second self-timer after each use.
- Keep the ISO visible in the viewfinder at all times.
- Make the simple vs. detailed status screen a setup option, that way the display button becomes an on/off switch. Since the detailed status screen is a superset of the other, users are expected to use one only.
- Let AUTO mode remember image-parameter changes like saturation, contrast and sharpness.
- Make a faster battery charger.
Lastly, adding support for a standard losslessly compressed high bit-depth image file format such as 16-bit per channel PNG would benefit all DSLR cameras including this one. However, the Sony Alpha A700's DRO would particularly benefit from the added precision.
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